From the edge of the water, the Director could see clear across the bay. The sky was like blue porcelain, the water clear as glass, and the city on the far side was a white, silver and gold-glittering sprawl in the afternoon sun.
The Director, however, wasn’t looking at the beauty of the sky or sea or the city. Her brow was furrowed in a little frown, and her attention focussed on the boat that was approaching the pier on which she stood.
Behind the Director, the Station nestled as though for protection against the cliffs that rose in a near-vertical wall. Once it had been fairly small, but now it sprawled all along the curve of the shoreline, office buildings and research laboratories, storage sheds and living quarters, stretching in clumps and clusters here and there from the foot of the cliff line to the edge of the sea.
It was a large institute, a busy one, and the Director had been in charge for almost six years now. She was used to dealing with problems, often several at once. But this particular problem was one she could have done without.
As the boat drew closer, the Director could make out the two hunched figures sitting in the middle, between the helmsman at the stern and the crewman at the bow. They were obviously uncomfortable on the sea, despite the calm water, and would probably have preferred to come by land. But of course the cliffs isolated the station and made land access less than easy.
Often, the Director had wished that access by land had been easier, that almost everything hadn’t had to be ferried by boat across the bay, and that the station hadn’t been almost completely cut off in bad weather. But not today; watching the boat approach gave her a chance to collect her thoughts.
The boat drew up to the pier, the rubber tyre fenders bumping on concrete, and the crewman at the bow jumped out and tired up. The Director took a deep breath and watched the two passengers hesitantly climb out. The man, dressed in a grey safari suit, was of slightly above medium height and had a paunch bulging out over stick-thin legs. The woman was dumpy, her neck was weighed down with beads and necklaces, and she clutched a large square polythene packet in one hand as though it was a lifeline. They even looked like trouble.
“Mr and Mrs Sahni?” she said, essaying a smile. “Welcome to the Station.”
The couple looked at her with surprise unmixed with pleasure. “We were expecting the Director to meet us,” the woman said.
“That’s right.” So it was going to be one of those times again. “I’m the Director.”
She expected to hear something about her being a woman and too young to boot, but the man put a hand on his wife’s arm. “Well, as long as you’re here, that’s what matters. We’re here to...” He hesitated, searching for words.
“Yes, of course I know why you’re here,” the Director said. She waved to the electric car parked behind her. “Shall we go? It’s a few minutes away, and we can talk as we drive.”
Reluctantly, they got into the car. The boat was still tied up at the pier. “We’ve asked them to wait for us,” the woman said, sounding defensive. “We don’t expect to be here long.”
The Director eased the car away from the pier and along the narrow road that followed the curve of the bay. The engine hummed almost soundlessly and the view was spectacular, but the two people in the back seat ignored it. “We don’t want to stay here a moment longer than necessary,” the man said.
“You realise,” the Director told them, her eyes fixed on the road, “that, strictly speaking, this is a courtesy visit. We don’t actually have any legal obligation to allow you here. The Station isn’t open to the general public.”
“We’re not general public,” Mr Sahni said, waving a hand indignantly. “Akshay is our son. So we’re entitled to be here.”
“Akshay is over eighteen,” the Director said, mildly. The road began climbing, the sea falling away to their left, and as always she looked out to sea, where the island bulged like the back of a gigantic turtle. This was supposed to be her day off, and she’d wanted to visit the island again, wade in the water, lie on the sand and relax a little. Instead... “He’s legally an adult,” she said, “and can do as he wishes.”
“He’s still a boy,” the mother replied aggressively. “We’ve a moral obligation to him, as his parents.”
“That’s quite apart from the horrible experiments this place does,” the father added, no less aggressively. “We’ve been reading the media reports.”
“I’m sure you have,” the Director murmured. “I can assure you that they’re no more accurate and unbiased than media reports about anything else.” The road turned and descended steeply to where a large building shaped like a horseshoe curved along the waterline, concrete walls extending from it like fingers into the sea. “This is the section of the Station where we’re going.”
“You’re the Director of this section as well?” the woman asked.
“No, of the whole Station, but apart from being an administrator I’m also a scientist, and this happens to be my own field of expertise.” The Director slowed down, stretching her hand out of the near window holding her plastic identity card. An electronic eye recognised it and slid a gate open.
It was actually a very pretty building, with green lawns set with flower beds outside and roofed with glittering solar panels, but the Director didn’t think her self-imposed guests would appreciate the architecture. She eased the car into its place and opened the door for them. “Would you like a tour?”
“No,” the woman said. “Just take us to Akshay, right away.”
“Fine,” the Director said. “Follow me, please.” She led them past the main entrance to a smaller, recessed doorway in the slender shadow of a tall palm. “Do you have some idea of how we do things here – what the procedure involves?”
The two of them glanced at each other. The woman’s mouth twisted bitterly. “You saw some poor animal’s head open and put a human brain inside,” she said.
“No, ma’am.” The Director led them down the long sloping passage with the rubber mats on the floor, which always reminded her of an airport’s boarding tunnel. “We do nothing of the sort. What we do is grow an organism from stem cells and...” She opened a locker, pulled on a lab coat, and then paused at the console, punching the code to open the door. “And you’ll see for yourself,” she said.
The chamber beyond was lit by shaded yellow lights in the ceiling, which gave it a glow like a partly overcast day. The lights reflected off the surface of the water in the tank that took up most of the centre of the room. The walls were lined with lockers, cylinders, hosepipes and a maze of other equipment, and the space between them and the pool was tiled and fitted with a railing. The Director beckoned her visitors to the railing and pointed. “There.”
The man and woman stood next to her and looked down into the pool. The surface of the water was about a metre and a half below the poolside, and the bottom was painted a dark brownish-grey; the lights reflected off the ripples and waves on the surface, shifting, glittering. The thing under the water was lost in the shifting of light and shadow.
“Where...?” Mr Sahni began.
It broke through the water then, almost directly below. The huge bullet head lunged upwards, the sickle-curved fanged beak pushing the air before it like an obstacle. The flippers, held close to the sides as the bulk of the torpedo-body flung itself into the air, the small eye on the side of the head swivelling. For a moment it hung, balanced on its tail, watching them. Then the blowhole atop the head opened, gusted moist air, and the creature fell back into the water with a crash and a spout of spray.
“Is that...him?” Mrs Sahni whispered finally.
The Director nodded. “Akshay, yes. As you can see, he’s fitted himself into his new environment.”
“What is he?” the father asked. “A dolphin?”
The Director shook her head. “He’s a beaked whale. He wanted something a larger than a dolphin, something that fitted his personality better. We gave him the choices, and he picked this.”
“Why a beaked whale?”
“We can’t make very large bodies, like one of the giant whales. That’s both unfeasible and prohibitive in terms of cost. Nor can we make a baby, implant the memories in it, and let it grow; it would never survive outside without spending years in the care of others of its species. A beaked whale is ideal, a happy medium. The commonest species is the Blainville’s, which is what we used for obvious reasons. I mean, once he leaves for good, we'd like him to be able to find a new home among his own kind.” She shrugged. “I’m sure you know that others elsewhere have chosen to be turned into elephants, horses, even eagles. Your son wanted to be a cetacean.”
“And now he’s trapped inside this pool,” the man said bitterly. “You barbarians.”
“Oh, no, sir,” the Director said. “He’s not trapped at all. In fact, we have no intention of keeping him here any longer than we have to.” She pointed at the far side of the tank. “Look at the far side of the pool. Can you see those doors at the water level? They lead directly to the ocean. Each day, he’s spending more and more time out there, getting used to living free. When he’s ready, we’ll let him go.”
“You have no right,” the woman whispered. “My son did nothing to deserve being turned into that...thing.”
“It was his choice, ma’am.” The Director was proud of her self-control. “The law allows any adult who feels he or she is trans-species to apply for reassignment. You’re welcome to check it for yourself.”
“It’s cruel,” the mother persisted. “And anyway they can’t do it without the parents’ agreement.”
“Not at all. In fact, it would be cruel to force someone to remain in a physical form which is repellent to him. It’s the same principle as sex change operations, just taken one step further. Would you ban sex change operations as well?”
Neither of her visitors replied, so the Director went on. “Your son, as you know, applied on his own behalf, on his eighteenth birthday. He didn’t need your permission to apply.” She paused momentarily as the dark torpedo-shape broke water on the far side of the pool and breathed again. “We did all the tests, and he was found completely suitable.”
“And what did you do then?” the woman asked.
“Then we grew his new body from stem cells, scanned his memories and personality from his old brain, recorded them, and implanted them into the new one. The whole thing was absolutely without the slightest pain and discomfort. Nor was there any sawing of heads involved. As I said, please don’t look for information from the media.” The Director pointed. “That, there, is a completely new Akshay. He’s just got the same memories and feelings as the old one, that’s all.”
The father glared at the surface of the pool as though blaming it, personally. “What happened to him?”
“To our Akshay, the original one. You scanned his memories and uploaded them into that...that creature. So what did you do with Akshay?”
The Director tilted her head, studying him. “You really don’t know?” She sighed. “I suppose you don’t. The entire idea is to give the person involved a new life as a creature of another species. As such, the old body is not just redundant, it actually defeats the purpose of the species transfer. If we just create a new creature, but let the old body continue with its thoughts and memories, the human body, I mean, it keeps suffering, don’t you see? Its problems aren’t solved at all by the creation of a new body with the same personality.”
“What are you saying?” Mr Sahni demanded. “You destroyed Akshay’s body?”
“No.” The Director glanced at the large clock on one wall. “Should we perhaps continue this discussion in my office?”
“No,” the man said. “We’ll talk right here.”
“Suit yourself.” The Director moved to a console mounted on the wall and pressed a few buttons. “It’s getting time for his outing in the ocean. As I said, he has to spend time in the open water, learning to be independent.” In silence they watched the doors at the far end of the pool slide open. Faint greenish light showed through.
“Do you force him to go out?” the woman asked. “You push him out into the ocean?”
The Director glanced at her. “Not at all. He looks forward to it, and comes back when he wants to.” She pointed at a shadow and a flicker of horizontal tail. “When he’s fully ready for a life in the wild he won’t come back at all. There he goes now.”
“Where is Akshay’s body now?” the man demanded. “Since you didn’t destroy it, what have you done with it?”
“He gave it to science,” the Director said briefly. “He said we could do anything with it that we wanted.”
“So you’ve taken it apart,” the woman replied flatly. “You’ve killed it.”
“No.” The Director pressed a couple of switches. Pumps began working, circulating the water from the sea into the pool, washing it out. “Your son’s body was exceptionally healthy and in excellent shape.” She remembered the boy as he had been, with his long, slim limbs, the muscles of his neck and shoulders, his handsome face, and how she’d wondered just why he’d wanted to give it all up for a life as another species. And then she’d seen the expression in his eyes. “We’re preserving it for when we need to use it.”
“That wouldn’t be of any use. No, his body is functional. It just doesn’t have a mind anymore. All the vitals are working.”
“But that means...” The Director winced as the woman’s fingers dug into her arm, right through the sleeve of her lab coat. “That means you can put him back for us as he was!”
The Director tried unsuccessfully to pull her arm free. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I don’t get you.”
“I’ll explain what she means,” Mr Sahni said. “You said you recorded the memories and feelings from Akshay and implanted them into that...that whale. So that means you must have the recording. All you have to do is implant them again in our son’s body and...”
The Director had already held up her hand. “No. Don’t even think about it. Your son gave his body to science. It belongs to science.”
“It belongs to us,” the man snapped. “We created him, gave him food and shelter and an education, and brought him up. No matter what you say, his body belongs to us, and we’ll go to court if necessary to get him back.”
“The courts won’t rule in your favour. He gave his body to science, and in this case it belongs to this Station.”
“Maybe they won’t. Maybe they will. We’ll see.” The father’s eyes glittered, black orbs of hate. “But you can be certain that the media will back us to the hilt. You’ll find what happens to your public image then.”
The Director knew. She could see the talking heads on the television, the headlines in the papers. They’d call her and the Station heartless, cruel monsters, pleasuring in the sorrow of two abandoned parents. And with the right kind of media attention, they might even be able to influence the judges to grant an injunction indefinitely prohibiting them from using the boy’s body.
“We can’t do it, though, even if we wanted to,” she said, with as much equanimity as she could muster, and quietly pressed another button on the panel, an unmarked one that she’d hoped never to have to use. “In accordance with standard procedures – and you can check on them, sir – we deleted the recording after transferring it to the new body. It’s actually a legal requirement that we do so.”
There was a silence that stretched and stretched like a rubber band. The yellow lights glittered on the water in the pool.
At last the man spoke. “In that case,” he said, “there’s only one thing left for us to demand.” He stared at her. “You know what that is.”
“Yes,” she said, profoundly glad she’d pressed the button. “I’m afraid I do.”
The beaked whale had been out to sea, well past the island, and he had swung in a curve back towards land when he heard the sound.
He’d been desperate to leave the pool today, much more so than any time before. Usually he liked swimming out to sea, which he did several times each day, and would only go back to the pool after he’d had enough. It was a resting place, a kind of refuge, where he could float, surfacing only to breathe and sometimes to play with the Director, who was his friend.
He no longer considered himself to be the human who had been Akshay Sahni. Oh, he had the memories and the thoughts of that body, but it was another life, now, on the other side of a transparent curtain. As far as possible he tried never to look back past that curtain.
Until today, when the curtain had been forcefully ripped aside. He’d heard the Director’s voice, and without listening to what she was saying he’d come rushing to the surface, because she was his friend. But she’d not been alone, and she’d not been in the company of the other scientists. The memory of the two people she’d been with had been seared into his mind, even his new mind, as with a brand.
A voice in his ears, shouting above his head, while he buried his face between his hands and stared down at a book covered with maths problems that made no sense, that never had made any sense. “Why can’t you study? Look at Rinu next door. She comes first in class every time. And you? How can we even show our faces, with the kind of marks you get?”
He’d muttered something that only made half-sense even to him, and been rewarded by a blow across the back of his head hard enough to bring the tears brimming over his eyelids. “Don’t you dare talk back. You’ll do as you’re told. Now get back to that book and don’t let me see you even looking up till half past nine.”
And then, lying awake, biting his pillow stifling sobs while listening to them fight in the next room, over why they’d had him at all and who was to blame for the way he was turning out. At eleven, he’d swallowed a bottle of ink, because he’d heard somebody say it was poisonous. All it had done was make his mouth turn blue, and then he’d vomited and made everything blue. At thirteen, he’d tried to cut his wrists, but given up from the pain. The next year he’d tried to run away, but never having been given any money of any kind, not even to buy sweets, he’d had to walk. He had not even managed to reach the outskirts before he’d been caught.
And six months after that, he’d been beaten black and blue after Rinu’s mother had reported gleefully that she’d seen him talking to a girl. He’d tried to explain that she was just asking him for directions, but that had made no difference. How dare he talk to some hussy instead of thinking of his books and his duty towards them, his parents?
How could he even explain to them that absolutely nothing of this made any sense to him, that he wanted no part of this, that he didn’t feel he owed them anything merely because, without asking him, they’d seen fit to give him birth? How could he tell them that their bank accounts and their social status meant as little to him as their movies and restaurants, their ambitions for themselves and for him? Would they understand a word? He knew the answer.
He’d been nerving himself up for another and more definitive suicide attempt when, just after his sixteenth birthday, he’d read of the new techniques for trans-specific transfer. And at once he’d known exactly what he’d wanted to do.
Even now, even in his whale-brain, buried behind the bulging melon of his forehead, he remembered the words. No longer must we be parted by the tyranny of genetics, the article had said. Extinction will be extinct. The withered branches of the tree of life will sprout leaves anew, rainbows arch over desert, and unhappiness be banished to the shadows where it belongs. Once the technique is perfected, there’s nothing we cannot do.
Once the technique is perfected, it’d said. Of course, the technique was not yet perfected, and he’d gambled that they needed volunteers. He’d gambled, and he’d won.
For the first time in his life, he’d won.
And in the pool, rejoicing in his new body, he’d grown more and more certain that this was victory. He’d felt real for the first time, things finally had begun making sense. And he’d liked the ocean, too, though he’d known quite well it would take many months more until he felt able to leave for good.
Even then, he’d decided, he’d return every once in a while, to let them know he was all right.
Today, though, he’d not wanted to go back; not until the two people from behind the curtain had disappeared, back in the past where they belonged. He’d dawdled as long as he could, but the sun was going down and he didn’t yet trust his abilities in the ocean at night, so he finally began to curve back towards the shore.
As he went, he scanned the ocean before him, clicks and tweets radiating in a cone from his melon, bouncing off things in his way, the echoes telling him about them. At first, he’d found it hard to get used to forming images by sound echoes, but now it came easily to him. Though the water was darkening and murky, he knew where the rocks were; he saw a school of fish, which heard him and went rushing away. The sound images showed him the wrecked trawler on the bottom, an angular shape he knew well, having investigated it on his first few swims outside the pool before deciding it had nothing interesting at all. And beyond it, the muttering line of echoes that was the shore, with the familiar cubical block which marked the entrance to the pool, his temporary home.
And then it was that the noise had come, hammering at his ears, and pushing him back like a blow with each pulse of sound.
He’d never heard it before except once, in the pool, when it was being demonstrated to him by the Director and the others; and then it had only been for a moment, a moment that had made him scream. He knew the other signals, those that called him back when he’d been out too long, or warned him to return because of something unexpected, like a sudden storm. But they had been used less and less in recent days, as he’d grown more accustomed to the outside ocean; and he’d been assured this was for the direst emergency, that it wouldn’t be used at all. And now there it was.
“Go away,” the signal shouted, in pulses of ugly noise which jarred him, echoed inside his skull, made pain shiver up his nerves. “Go away, go away, go away.”
And underneath, unstated but clearly understood, it said, too, “...and never come back again. Never, for anything, ever come back again.”
Flinching, crying out in distress, he banked in a swooping curve, rose once to breathe, and set course for out towards the night-black sea.
For hours after her visitors had finally left, still shouting threats and promising to be back in the morning, with lawyers, the Director leaned on the railing by the side of the pool, looking down at the water. Her assistant came and spoke to her. She only shook her head, not looking up, and at last he went away again.
There would be time to talk later. Time for unofficial, off the record, explanations. Not now, though. Not now.
“You’ll record the memories from that whale when he comes back,” the visitors had said. “And then you’ll put them back in our son’s head.” But of course the whale hadn’t come back.
“I did tell you that he’d leave permanently when he was ready,” the Director had said finally. “He must have decided he was ready now.”
They hadn’t believed her, of course, and said so. “We’ll keep coming back,” the mother had said. “We’ll keep coming to check, and we’ll find him here. And then just see what we’ll do to you – this place, and you, personally.”
She was sure they’d be back, too; but they wouldn’t find the whale. They would never find him.
“The problem is,” the Director whispered, “that I won’t find you either. I’ll never know what happened to you, as long as I live. I just hope you’ll be happy. I wanted to give you a start in life, but that’s all I can give you now, that little hope. I’m sorry.”
Her words fell on the water, on to the yellow lights reflected on the waves in the pool as they moved to and fro, and were washed by the pumps out into the evening tide.
The sea was vaster than the whale had imagined, and deep and black, and he was all alone.
His echoes traced a cone of sound into the water, and it brought him news of what lay before him; emptiness to the far reaches of hearing, except for flickering shapes that spun away into silence at his coming. He was alone, and suddenly he was frightened, more than he’d ever been in this new life; more than he’d ever expected to be frightened again. And then he was floundering at the surface, spouting in harsh breaths; and he cried out into the dark sea, screaming his loneliness and his fear and his pain.
She came to him, then, coming up beside him and matching his swimming stroke for stroke, so exactly that it was only when he felt the touch of her flippers on his flank, like the ghost of a memory of the time before, that he knew she was there. Her beaked head nuzzled him, gently, her teeth nibbling him, until his breathing quietened, and his heart settled back into its rhythm.
Don’t be afraid, she told him, in wordless words, a new language he already understood. Don’t be afraid, I’m there, I’m there for you. I’ll be with you from now on.
The two whales broke the surface, breathed in unison, and then dived together, down into the ink-black depths of the heaving, endless sea.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016